Catullus: Contribution as Roman Lyric Poet of Latin

Also Read

      Contemporary with Lucretius, but, unlike him, living in the full whirl and glare of Roman life, was a group of young men who were professed followers of the Alexandrian school. In the thirty years which separate the Civil war and the Sullan restoration from the sombre period that opened with the outbreak of hostilities between Caesar and the senate, social life at Rome among the upper classes was unusually interesting and exciting. The outward polish of Greek civilisation was for the first time fully mastered, and an intelligent interest in art and literature was the fashion of good society. The "young man about town," whom we find later fully developed in the poetry of Ovid, sprang into existence, but as the government was still in the hands of the aristocracy, fashion and politics were intimately intermingled, and the lighter literature of the day touched grave issues on every side. The poems of Catullus are full of references to his friends and his enemies among this group of writers. Two of the former, Cinna and Calvus, were poets of considerable importance.

      Gaius Helvius Cinna—somewhat doubtfully identified with the "Cinna the poet" who met such a tragical end at the hands of the populace after Caesar's assassination—carried the Alexandrian movement to its most uncompromising conclusions. His fame (and that fame was very great) rested on a short poem called Zmyrna, over which he spent ten years' labour, and which, by subject and treatment alike, carried the method of that school to its furthest excess. In its recondite obscurity it outdid Lycophron himself. More than one grammarian of the time made a reputation solely by a commentary on it. It throws much light on the peculiar artistic position of Catullus, to bear in mind that this masterpiece of frigid pedantry obtained his warm and evidently sincere praise.

The other member of the triad, Gaius Licinius Macer Calvus, one of the most brilliant men of his time, was too deeply plunged in politics to be more than an accomplished amateur in poetry. Yet it must have been more than his intimate friendship with Catullus, and their common fate of too early a death, that made the two names so constantly coupled afterwards. By the critics of the Silver Age, no less than by Horace and Propertius, the same idea is frequently repeated, which has its best-known expression in Ovid's beautiful invocation in his elegy on Tibullus—
Catullus: as Roman Lyric Poet

      The other member of the triad, Gaius Licinius Macer Calvus, one of the most brilliant men of his time, was too deeply plunged in politics to be more than an accomplished amateur in poetry. Yet it must have been more than his intimate friendship with Catullus, and their common fate of too early a death, that made the two names so constantly coupled afterwards. By the critics of the Silver Age, no less than by Horace and Propertius, the same idea is frequently repeated, which has its best-known expression in Ovid's beautiful invocation in his elegy on Tibullus—

 Obvius huic venias, hedera iuvenilia cinctus
 Tempora, cum Calvo, docte Catulle, tuo._

      We must lament the total loss of a volume of lyrics which competent judges thought worthy to be set beside that of his wonderful friend.

      Gaius Valerius Catullus of Verona, one of the greatest names of Latin poetry, belonged, like most of this group, to a wealthy and distinguished family, and was introduced at an early age to the most fashionable circles of the capital. He was just so much younger than Lucretius that the Marian terror and the Sullan proscriptions can hardly have left any strong traces on his memory. When he died, Caesar was still fighting in Gaul, and the downfall of the Republic could only be dimly foreseen. In time, no less than in genius, he represents the fine flower of the Ciceronian age. He was about five and twenty when the attachment began between him and the lady whom he has immortalised under the name of Lesbia. By birth a Claudia, and wife of her cousin, a Caecilius Metellus, she belonged by blood and marriage to the two proudest families of the inner circle of the aristocracy. Clodia was seven years older than Catullus; but that only made their mutual attraction more irresistible: and the death of her husband in the year after his consulship, whether or not there was foundation for the common rumour that she had poisoned him, was an incident that seems to have passed almost unnoticed in the first fervour of their passion. The story of infatuation, revolt, relapse, fresh revolt and fresh entanglement, lives and breathes in the verses of Catullus. It was after their final rupture that Catullus made that journey to Asia which gave occasion to his charming poems of travel. In the years which followed his return to Italy, he continued to produce with great versatility and force, making experiments in several new styles, and devoting great pains to an elaborate metrical technique. Feats of learning and skill alternate with political verses, into which he carries all his violence of love and hatred. But while these later poems compel our admiration, it is the earlier ones which win and keep our love. Though the old liquid note ever and again recurs, the freshness of these first lyrics, in which life and love and poetry are all alike in their morning glory, was never to be wholly recaptured. Nor did he live to settle down on any matured second manner. He was thirty-three at the utmost—perhaps not more than thirty—when he died, leaving behind him the volume of poems which sets him as the third beside Sappho and Shelley.

      The order of the poems in this volume seems to be an artificial compromise between two systems—one an arrangement by metre, and the other by date of composition. In the former view the book falls into three sections—the pure lyrics, the idyllic pieces, and the poems in elegiac verse. The central place is occupied by the longest and most elaborate, if not the most successful, of his poems, the epic idyl on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. Before this are the lyrics, chiefly in the phalaecian eleven-syllabled verse which Catullus made so peculiarly his own, but in iambic, sapphic, choriambic, and other metres also, winding up with the fine epithalamium written for the marriage of his friends, Mallius and Vinia. The transition from this group of lyrics to the Marriage of Peleus and Thetis is made with great skill through another wedding-chant, an idyl in form, but approaching to a lyric in tone, without any personal allusions, and not apparently written for any particular occasion. Finally comes a third group of poems, extending to the end of the volume, all written in elegiac verse, but otherwise extremely varied in date, subject, and manner. The only poem thus left unaccounted for, the Atys, is inserted in the centre of the volume, between the two hexameter poems, as though to make its wild metre and rapid movement the more striking by contrast with their smooth and languid rhythms. Whether the arrangement of the whole book comes from the poet's own hand is very doubtful. His dedicatory verses, which stand at the head of the volume, are more probably attached to the first part only, the book of lyrics. Catullus almost certainly died in 54 B.C.; the only positive dates assignable to particular poems, in either the lyric or the elegiac section, alike lie within the three or four years previous, and, while no strict chronological order is followed, the pieces at the beginning of the book are almost certainly the earliest, and those at the end among the latest.

      Among the poems of Catullus, those connected with Lesbia hold the foremost place, and, as expressions of direct personal emotion, are unsurpassed, not merely in Latin, but in any literature. There are no poems of the growth of love among them; from the first, Lesbia appears as the absolute mistress of her lover's heart:

 Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
 Rumoresque senum severiorum
 Omnes unius aestimemus assis.
 Soles occidere et redire possunt;
 Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
 Nox est perpetua una dormienda:—

      Thus he cries in the first intoxication of his happiness, as yet ignorant that the brief light of his love was to go out before noon. Clodia soon showed that the advice not to care for the opinion of the world was, in her case, infinitely superfluous. That intolerable pride which was the proverbial curse of the Claudian house took in her the form of a flagrant disregard of all conventions. In the early days of their love, Catullus only felt, or only expressed, the beautiful side of this recklessness. His affection for Clodia had in it, he says, something of the tenderness of parents for their children; and the poems themselves bear out the paradox. We do not need to read deeply in Catullus to be assured that merely animal passion ran as strong in him as it ever did in any man. But in the earlier poems to Lesbia all this turns to air and fire; the intensity of his love melts its grosser elements into one white flame. There is hardly even a word of Lesbia's bodily beauty; her great blazing eyes have only come down to us in the sarcastic allusions made to them by Cicero in his speeches and letters. As in a few of the finest lyrics of Burns, with whom Catullus, as a poet of love, has often been compared, the ardency of passion has effected for quintessential moments the work that long ages may work out on the whole fabric of a human soul—Concretam exemit labem purumque reliquit aetherium sensum atque aurai simplicis ignem.

      But long after the rapture had passed away the enthralment remained. Lesbia's first infidelities only riveted her lover's chains—

 Amantem iniuria talis
 Cogit amare magis;

      Then he hangs between love and hatred, in the poise of soul immortalised by him in the famous verse—

 Odi et amo: quare id faciam fortasse requiris;
 Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

      There were ruptures and reconciliations, and renewed ruptures and repeated returns, but through them all, while his love hardly lessens, his hatred continually grows, and the lyrical cry becomes one of the sharpest agony: through protestations of fidelity, through wails over ingratitude, he sinks at last into a stupor only broken by moans of pain. Then at last youth reasserts itself, and he is stung into new life by the knowledge that he has simply dropped out of Lesbia's existence. His final renunciation is no longer addressed to her deaf ears, but flung at her in studied insult through two of the associates of their old revels in Rome.

 Cum suis vivat valeatque moechis
 Quos simul complexa tenet trecentos
 Nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium
 Ilia rumpens—

      So the hard clear verse flashes out, to melt away in the dying fall, the long-drawn sweetness of the last words of all—

 Nec meum respectet ut ante amorem
 Qui illius culpa cecidit, velut prati
 Ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
 Tactus aratro est.

      Foremost among the other lyrics of Catullus which have a personal reference are those concerned with his journey to Asia, and the death in the Troad of the deeply loved brother whose tomb he visited on that journey. The excitement of travel and the delight of return have never been more gracefully touched than in these little lyrics, of which every other line has become a household word, the Iam ver egelidos refert tepores, and the lovely Paene insularum Sirmio insularumque, whose cadences have gathered a fresh sweetness in the hands of Tennyson. But a higher note is reached in one or two of the short pieces on his brother's death, which are lyrics in all but technical name. The finest of these has all the delicate simplicity of an epitaph by the best Greek artists, Leonidas or Antipater or Simonides himself; and with this it combines the specific Latin dignity, and a range of tones, from the ocean-roll of its opening hexameter, Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus, to the sobbing wail of the Atque in perpehtum frater ave atque vale in which it dies away, that is hardly equalled except in some of Shakespeare's sonnets.

      It is in these short lyrics of personal passion or emotion that the genius of Catullus is most eminent; but the same high qualities appear in the few specimens he has left of more elaborate lyrical architecture, the Ode to Diana, the marriage-song for Mallius and Vinia, and the Atys. The first of these, brief as it is, has a breadth and grandeur of manner which—as in the noble fragment of Keats' Ode to Maia—lift it into the rank of great masterpieces. The epithalamium, on the other hand, with which the book of lyrics ends, while very simple in structure, is large in scale. It is as much longer than the rest of the lyrics as the marriage-song which stands at the end of In Memoriam is than the other sections of that poem. In the charm of perfect simplicity it equals the finest of his lyrics; but besides this, it has in its clear ringing music what is for this period an almost unique premonition of the new world that rose out of the darkness of the Middle Ages, the world that had invented bells and church-organs, and had added a new romantic beauty to love and marriage. With a richness of phrase that recalls the Song of Solomon, the verses clash and swing: Open your bars, O gates! the bride is at hand! Lo, how the torches shake out their splendid tresses! … Even so in a rich lord's garden-close might stand a hyacinth-flower. Lo, the torches shake out their golden tresses; go forth, O bride! Day wanes; go forth, O bride! And the verse at the end, about the baby on its mother's lap—

 Torqutatus volo parvulus
 Matris e gremio suae
 Porrigens teneras manus
 Dulce rideat ad patrem
 Semihiante labello—

      Is as incomparable; not again till the Florentine art of the fifteenth century was the picture drawn with so true and tender a hand.

      Over the Atys modern criticism has exhausted itself without any definite result. The accident of its being the only Latin poem extant in the peculiar galliambic metre has combined with the nature of the subject to induce a tradition about it as though it were the most daring and extraordinary of Catullus' poems. The truth is quite different. It stands midway between the lyrics and the idyls in being a poem of most studied and elaborate artifice, in which Catullus has chosen, not the statelier and more familiar rhythms of the hexameter or elegiac, but one of the Greek lyric metres, of which he had already introduced several others into Latin. As a tour de force in metrical form it is remarkable enough, and probably marks the highest point of Latin achievement in imitation of the more complex Greek metres. As a lyric poem it preserves, even in its highly artificial structure, much of the direct force and simplicity which mark all Catullus' best lyrics. That it goes beyond this, or that—as is often repeated—it transcends both the idyls and the briefer lyrics in sustained beauty and passion, cannot be held by any sane judgment.

      How far elaboration could lead Catullus is shown in the long idyllic poem on the Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. Here he entirely abandons the lyric manner, and adventures on a new field, in which he does not prove very successful. The poem is full of great beauties of detail; but as a whole it is cloying and yet not satisfying. For a few lines together Catullus can write in hexameter more exquisitely than any other Latin poet. The description in this piece of the little breeze that rises at dawn, beginning Hic qualis flatu placidum mare matutino, like the more famous lines in his other idyllic poem—

 Ut flos in septis secretum nascitur hortis,
 Ignotus pecori, nullo contusus aratro,
 Quem mulcent aurae, firmat sol, educat imber;
 Multi illum pueri, multae optavere puellae—

      Has an intangible and inexpressible beauty such as never recurs in the more mature art of greater masters. But Catullus has no narrative gift; his use of the hexameter is confined to a limited set of rhythms which in a poem about the length of a book of the Georgics become hopelessly monotonous; and it finally stops, rather than ends, when the writer (as is already the case with the reader) grows tired of it. It is remarkable that the poet who in the lightness and speed of his other metres is unrivalled in Latin, should, when he attempts the hexameter, be more languid and heavy, not only than his successors, but than his contemporaries. Here, as in the elaborate imitations of Callimachus with which he tested his command of the Latin elegiac, he is weak because he wanders off the true line, not from any failure in his own special gift, which was purely and simply lyrical. When he uses the elegiac verse to express his own feeling, as in the attacks on political or personal enemies, it has the same direct lucidity (as of an extraordinarily gifted child) which is the essential charm of his lyrics.

      It is just this quality, this clear and almost terrible simplicity, that puts Catullus in a place by himself among the Latin poets. Where others labour in the ore of thought and gradually forge it out into sustained expression, he sees with a single glance, and does not strike a second time. His imperious lucidity is perfectly unhesitating in its action; whether he is using it for the daintiest flower of sentiment—fair passions and bountiful pities and loves without stain—or for the expression of his fiery passions and hatreds in some flagrant obscenity or venomous insult, it is alike straight and reckless, with no scruple and no mincing of words; in Mr. Swinburne's curiously true and vivid phrase, he "makes mouths at our speech" when we try to follow him.

      With the death of Catullus and Calvus, an era in Latin poetry definitely ends. Only thirteen or fourteen years later a new era begins with the appearance of Virgil; but this small interval of time is sufficient to mark the passage from one age—we might almost say from one civilisation—to another. During these years poetry was almost silent, while the Roman world shook with continuous civil war and the thunder of prodigious armies. The school of minor Alexandrian poets still indeed continued; the "warblers of Euphorion" with their smooth rhythms and elaborate finesse of workmanship are spoken of by Cicero as still numerous and active ten years after Catullus' death. But their artifice had lost the gloss of novelty; and the enthusiasm which greeted the appearance of the Eclogues was due less perhaps to their intrinsic excellence than to the relief with which Roman poetry shook itself free from the fetters of so rigorous and exhausting a convention.

Previous Post Next Post